Making the Pivot: Corporate Career to Triggering Social Change


08:08 Monique:     So, what inspired your initial pursuit of a degree in Finance and Accounting?

08:14 Priya:     Yeah. I actually did a lot of volunteer work at a young age growing up. So, I worked at my mother Teresa’s orphanage before I was at university and I did a lot of different exposures to nonprofit service work, both locally and internationally. And what I saw was this big gap between business and the social sector. There were two groups that needed each other to be sustainable and really create impact, but they’re also two groups that didn’t speak the same language, right? And so it was very hard to work together. So, from the exposure, I realized it is really a privilege to attend university. Most people in the world do not have that opportunity. And I grew up as an artist. I always thought I was going to go into something creative. But after seeing that, I really took that into perspective and decided to go into business and learn those basic skill sets of accounting and finance in order to eventually hopefully bring those skill sets back to these organizations that are impacting communities to make them even more impactful and hopefully bring that knowledge to them. So, that was my mindset within going into Accounting and Finance. Yeah. 

09:20 Monique:     It seems like you had seeds planted within you of the longer term in terms of what you want to do beyond the business world.

09:28 Priya:               Yeah, definitely. I had an idea of wanting to apply these skillsets of accounting and finance into community work because I saw that gap and I am wanting to make it more sustainable through those skillsets that I can bring,

09:44 Monique:     As you think about it, what were some of the things you learned that you did not know when you were in the business community in terms of what has kept this chasm between the needs of society and the business community? What do you know now to be true from the business perspective?

10:06 Priya:     I think that it’s just two different languages and two different goals. In business, you’re taught to, “A success means profit.” Making more money, making more wealth. And with community work, it’s “Success means impact.” How are you really benefiting somebody’s life? And by really assessing how you benefit someone’s life, it’s not easily transferable into monetary impact, right? There’s a lot of subjectivity. But at the end of the day, that calculation of the financial impact of bettering someone’s lives, it’s never actually been made, which should be paid, right? The way that we keep kids off the streets that decrease the violence really impacts the economies that we live in and how much we’re spending. But that’s an economic conversation. It’s not a conversation that’s taught in business, which it should be in order for us to incorporate those ideas into business plans, into sustainable models of how we build businesses to influence our community. I think that’s the missing piece with business, right? We’re not teaching when we build businesses how does it impact the community, even with creating a standalone business. How is the environmental impact happening? How is the community impact? That’s not something that’s taught. And with non-profit, it’s so much of a focus that you’re really not talking about, how are we bringing in revenue? What is revenue? You know what I mean? And so I think it’s just two different mindsets that are not being exposed to each other. But when you do bring them together, a lot of these issues that we see in both sectors can actually be mitigated. So, yeah, that’s what I learned. It’s just that there are two big gaps in how we see the world and both industries that haven’t come together yet.

11:50 Monique:     Nice. And from your journey, you went from E&Y, you went to a leadership role at Groupon, right. And then you pivot it into what I like to call a portfolio career, right? That has at its core, what’s purpose-driven and meaningful for you. Talk about that shift. How did you know it was time?

12:10 Priya:     I always knew it was time ever since I started, because like I said, I went into business knowing that I wanted to apply it to community work and making a larger impact on society. And I started the organization actually while I was at EY. 

12:28 Monique:     You did?

12:29 Priya:     Yeah. I just did it on the side. It was something that started with the blog that went viral. And then eventually when I got to Groupon, I was able to bring programming to different schools in Chicago. And I would rush out of work to go to these schools. To help them implement the program, that sort of thing. And by building on the side, I really started seeing how my purpose was going to work, right? And also, I was pulling a lot of skillsets that I was getting from my day job to apply that into this side... no, I wouldn’t call it a hustle, but... to make that work. And as I was starting to build the model, the vision, and all these things, I knew that there was a time to make a transition. And everybody always asks me how did I finally decide. And honestly, we were talking about a little earlier, it gets very comfortable to stay in a very comfy position in a corporate space. You’re getting paid, you have insurance, things are easy. You have a nice computer. It was really a very serendipitous moment that happened. I actually came into work one day and I sat in front of my computer really not inspired by what I was doing. And I told myself, “I have to get out of here. I have to know how I’m going to make this transition to doing The Simple Good.” And shortly after, I got called by my Director into his office, and I found out that our department got eliminated. So I had enough time.

13:59 Monique:     You were like, “Okay.” 

14:01 Priya:     Oh, that’s it. Did you hear me? I’m like just, “Something did happen here.” Yeah. I had an option to either take another role or just leave. And I took that as a sign to leave. And yeah, it took that ultimatum for me to take that transition. But after I started really coming into The Simple Good, I realized that I could’ve done this earlier, just to make the transition and follow my purpose, because when you do follow your purpose, the universe really does help inspire you to make it work out for you. And that’s really what happened the moment that I left Groupon.

14:36 Monique:     Well, and that is such a common theme when individuals are forced to make a change, right? Some external entity beyond them moves their hand for them. And they’d be like, “Well, I’ve been thinking about this thing. I’m going to now jump into it wholeheartedly.” So, we’re all benefiting from the work that you’re doing with The Simple Good. So, yay, Groupon. But more importantly is, you on the side, I imagine, building your capacity, building your thought process, your mind, all the elements around The Simple Good during your time beyond your nine-to-five. And that’s where we have a shared... I guess, something in common because for our listeners, the organization that I helped to start on the side, the Young Leaders Fund, I was so excited to know that that was something that helped to provide some financial resources to you. I was one of the founders on that while in Chicago and I was working at Kodak, but this was something I was doing on the side because I so believed in the purpose of the Young Leaders Fund was to get young leaders under the age of 40 moving forward in work related to philanthropy. So great. Yes, isn’t that crazy

15:52 Priya:     What a small world. 

15:55 Monique:     Isn’t that crazy?

15:56 Priya:     The first grant that we received that helped the website and kept things going. So--

16:01 Monique:     And I love to share the story that I actually was the first chairperson of our education committee, where we were reviewing the education grant opportunities. And Michelle Obama was on my committee. I was actually going through some old paperwork and I was like, “Oh, here’s my committee. Oh, I forgot, Michelle was actually one of the committee members.” But then before I actually had an opportunity to dig deep there, I moved on to business school. But let’s come back and understand, now you’ve made this pivot, what is your unique perspective on humanity? What do you want to happen as a result of this positive activism that you’re doing through art and discussion?

16:44 Priya:     Really the larger, the 10,000 feet perspective of this work is to really understand how we are all very connected and to break down barriers that we have created for ourselves, right? We aren’t born into this world with obstacles or barriers or stereotypes or prejudices. We have created them. And we need to go back to these fundamental truths of how we are all actually very connected and how we really learn, grow, and survive with each other. So, that’s really the inherent goal and basis of what we teach to kids is this development of empathy, cross-cultural dialogue, and self-awareness because by understanding ourselves, we are better able to understand each other and how we connect to each other. So, that’s the deeper work that I think our society is missing. We create a lot of ways to fulfill those voids and those holes about knowing ourselves through capitalism, by buying things, by temporary fulfillment. And I think during this time, during the pandemic, we really have had to force ourselves to look within ourselves and fill this time that we are isolated to understanding who we are. And that’s been really hard for a lot of people because we’ve never been challenged to do so. And so even as we navigate our careers and our relationships in life, one thing that I challenge, I hope our work inspires people to challenge is to figure out who we really are. And through that, you really find your purpose, and therefore, you’re accountable to bring these truths and talents out into the world to really thrive in them and help benefit and impact our communities. We’re all born with strengths, we’re all born with talents and gifts that some of us never really unleashed into the world. And therefore, we’re never able to make that true impact that we can during our time on this earth. And so that’s something that’s never going to really always get challenged at work. It’s something that you always have to do on your own. And that’s what I’m really trying to inspire from other people.

18:48 Monique:     And one of the things I have to say with that, I mean, very optimistic perspective and that we do find ways to more effectively connect. One of the things I learned to be true and the efforts I had at the community level is there’s the micro-community level hand to hand and there’s also the macro issues, legislation that can either support us or serve as a barrier. So, what are some of the macro issues or legislation that you want to have a positive impact on?

19:22 Priya:     I call it... so, education is the basis of everything that I’m trying to impact, and that is a larger conversation of how we operate, right? And what I try to call it is really instilling institutional empathy, really teaching empathy, connection, and self-development skills within our school settings. We really focus on social-emotional learning, which is awareness in order to improve decision-making and success. That’s something that has to be taught from a very young age into our development and our growth. What I really hoped to do is really encourage this concept that I call institutional empathy, which is really teaching and instilling empathy, values, social-emotional learning, and self-awareness within our curriculum in schools and how we even guide the culture of education. And this is both at an elementary level, but also at higher institutions of how are we fully developing a child and also in adults to unleash their full selves so that they can be better equipped to teach each other and create more of a holistic community of human beings. I think that’s the thing that’s missing from education and how are we really developing full human beings and not just education to take a job, right? Because those jobs are going to be very temporary if we don’t know ourselves. And I think that’s the challenge that we have a barrier for right now.

20:44 Monique:     What I like about what you’re just saying is that is aligned, your vision is aligned with the development of critical thinking skills, as opposed to this linear “Do this, do this, take these classes, get these grades, go to college.” We have this linear, which is really a falsehood in terms of how to be satisfied professionally for the long-term, as opposed to developing critical thinking skills and supporting more dynamic learning through even some resistance and people learning to defend their points of view and have, as you said empathy, and then possibly changing their point of view. Where do we foster?

21:29 Priya:     Yeah. And also knowing how to apply these skillsets outside of the workforce, right? I’m an accountant, I guess we could say. I’m an accountant. But a lot of accountants don’t know how to apply their technical skills to other settings. And that’s something that can be really valuable for a nonprofit or a small organization, for ourselves personally. But I think that there’s some innovation that comes when we are personally tied to using our skillsets towards a purpose. And that’s why it’s so important to incorporate that in education.

22:02 Monique:     Really good point. So, when you think about the resources that you had to start The Simple Good, what were those? What are the resources you had when you started and what do you constantly look for in terms of resources to support your mission?

22:16 Priya:     I had nothing when I started this.

22:20 Monique:     A blank slate of opportunity.

22:24 Priya:     I had a blog and some really inspiring photos and a journey basically that I had already gone through that I was ready for other people to learn from. So, I think to start with anything is really having a vision of how this connects to you, and that guides the vision of how we move forward. And that first step was to actually tell the story, and that was through the blog. And it’s understanding how the world would respond and how they connected to it. And through that, seeing if this would be a viable concept to move forward with. So, yeah, I think that’s always the first thing I tell people – starting really small and seeing how people respond, do people connect to it? And then from there, building and understanding your pool of and who your audience is and how they connect and why they do.

24:32 Monique:     What do most people ask you about personally in terms of your journey?

24:39 Priya:     I guess, I don’t know. Like, how I’m still here, I guess? What my day looks like? Yeah. 

24:45 Monique:     What does your day look like? 

24:48 Priya:     Not a nine-to-five. I’ll tell you that, but--

24:50 Monique:     Right.

24:53 Priya:     Yeah. Entrepreneurship is definitely not... You have to have very strong hearts and a very strong passion. It intertwines with your life, right? It’s not something that you turn off, it’s very much about you. And that’s a good thing. I don’t think... Sometimes it’s looked down upon like, “Oh, you should have a separation.” I think that’s okay to be very connected to your work. And I feel I’ve grown and developed about figuring out who I am, because I’m very connected to how I’m contributing on an everyday basis. And I definitely have seen a change in myself and how I live life, like I wake up every day, very excited about what I’m going to do, even if it is a very stressful day. And I want to just sleep in a little bit. And I also have had a change of value, things that I spend my time with and things that I’ve purchased, which is not much anymore because I’m fulfilling my time with something that’s making me happy.  And so, yeah, I think it really changes your life about what you prioritize in life and what is important to you, and going back to these, not feeling some voids with things that don’t really matter.

25:58   Monique:         Yeah. And once you’ve gone through that, in terms of the stuff, you got a career, you finally got this paycheck, and yeah, you acquire stuff. And then now you’re looking at it like, “Okay, it is just stuff.”

26:10   Priya:               Yeah.

26:11   Monique:         Right.

26:12   Priya:               When I left my job, I think the first month after... first two months, my brother saw my credit card bill and he saw how dramatically it went down. And I didn’t even notice actually, because I was just so immersed in things that I loved, that I didn’t have time to just go out and spend, or I didn’t have a need to either. I remember I would go out and spend because I just wasn’t fulfilled. And I thought this is the reason why you spend eight hours a day doing something you’re not happy with, so you could buy stuff. 

26:42   Monique:         Yeah, no. And that’s what some people have gotten into that trap. And I hear it often in terms of they’re like, “This is so meaningless.” But now, in particular, lawyers who come to me and they’ve been making significant income. They’ve just gotten to a point, they’re like, “Is this it? Is this all my life is about?” The joy has completely gone. However, they created a lifestyle that demands the car and the house, and this and that demands you have the income. And so then that I believe is what’s limiting than in your choices.

27:18   Priya:               Yeah. You get used to a certain type of lifestyle and then your reliance on a job that doesn’t make you happy. So, yeah, I think these are all temporary things though, right? It’s a mindset thing and we can slowly remove ourselves with what we think we need. We do a lot of work in the underserved communities obviously, but we also do work in East Africa as well and seeing that happiness exists, even when you don’t need to have stuff. The US is full of stuff. That is what we pride happiness on. But it really exists beyond that as well, and I keep that in mind always.

28:00   Monique: What are your, what would you say life lessons that you’ve acquired on your journey?

28:05   Priya:               Yeah. So many. I think what’s the most beautiful part about my journey and The Simple Good is that you realize when you’re doing something that is your truth and your purpose, anybody in the world will connect to it. And that’s been the most powerful part about what I have been able to do in bringing The Simple Good all over the world. So, we do work in East Africa and I work with children of genocide survivors and children of formerly abducted child soldiers, and bringing up this concept of our program, focused on positivity and finding the simple good, and seeing individuals that have gone through so much that we have not seen in the States necessarily within our lifetime, and still really resonate and seek after the simple good and bringing us there has been really powerful because they really connect to it. And that’s something that comes from a truth that is within a human being and having the courage to bring that outward. And so having the courage to create, having the courage to be vulnerable and create something that is very close to you really allows us to expand beyond what we might even think as possible. I never thought that I would see a letter of agreement with The Simple Good and a group associated with formerly abducted child soldiers. But I’m grateful that they resonate with it so much that they wanted to put their name next to ours. And I think that’s been one of the takeaways that I always think about is that even when things are getting hard, remembering what is true to you and that will lead you,

29:43   Monique:        The point you made of having the courage to create has really resonated with me and having courage period, right? How do you nurture that in the community you engage with?

29:59 Priya:  What we’re doing is really focused on hope. And that is what really fuels all of this. Things do get hard and people always try to be negative or find a way to not see the possibility of it. But at the same time, you can always find hope when you look for it. And so there have been so many different examples of our students really thriving and showing their possibility and showing indicators of moving towards a new direction that will impact not only us but the larger community. And those are all huge indicators of hope of like, yes, things are going to get better. And those are moments that I really hold onto, even if it’s very, very small, that continues where I’m pushing my courage to move forward because we can always find reasons to stop honestly. 

30:49 Monique     I know I work with clients who are engaging with me because they do want to make a change. And by having a coach to help you map out your plan and that journey to getting to that newly defined destination, that is actually one of the areas that we have to explore, is how will you respond to your family and friends as you make this big pivot so that we’re talking about how to be prepared for that such that it doesn’t squelch your dreams. Because you continue to hear it, you know it’s going to come because people are like, “Why did you leave that good job?” And be prepared for that response helps, I’ve noticed with clients in terms of getting through that element.

31:35 Priya:     Definitely. I mean, I was definitely scared to tell my mom after I left my job. And I was actually very surprised by her answer. I thought she was going to be upset, but she said, “You’ve always been an artist and the art has followed you. And this will work out.” And I think it’s because it was very true to me. I’m very connected to me that, even though she didn’t completely understand what I was doing and what the logistics of it matter, what the future of it holds. She knew--

32:08 Monique:     She had to believe in you.

32:09   Priya:     Yeah. Well, she knew that this is something that was always a part of me and that I was going to make it work because it is something that I truly care about. And I think that’s the piece that you lead with, is that this is a part of me. And by doing that, your family will automatically have to care about it because they’ve already seen examples of evidence. It’s already functioning within you. I think it gets harder conversation when it’s completely out of nowhere and there’s no connection to it. But yeah, I think there’s always going to be ambiguity and distrust and uncertainty because your family cares about you and all this stuff, which can be frustrating, by the way.

32:53   Monique:        What do you identify as your strengths that support you in excelling?

33:01   Priya:     I think that I’m very resilient, and that’s really derived by me, always looking for the good and looking for hope and looking for reasons to move forward. And like we were saying earlier, it’s very easy to do the opposite. And I think there’s a discipline and mindset that it takes to be resilient because you’re looking and understanding what it takes to keep going. And so I think that’s a strength that I have instilled within myself taking on this journey, but even before then in my life, knowing how to keep going, despite the doubts of others. I’ve always been doubted just because of who I am. I’m born with one hand. And so since I was born, people thought I couldn’t do anything, whether it came from jumping rope to playing sports, being allowed to hang out with people, those sorts of things I’ve always been told no. And I always had the mindset of not allowing that to be my truth. And that has also carried into my work. People are always going to doubt what you do... doubt what you say, but they can’t doubt what you do once they see it. Now, it has become, once people see things, they now understand that it is a real thing. It is a reality. But people always doubt the possibility. And so you have to know your own possibility and you have to know how to prove that out to folks.

34:29 Monique:     Well, and I fully believe that doubting of possibility is someone’s reflection of their own insecurity. 

34:28 Priya:     Yeah, exactly.

34:41 Monique:     And so I recognize we’re coming here to the end, Priya. So, I’m enjoying this conversation, and thank you so much for giving up your time to this conversation and really being an example for other young professionals who have dreams and aspirations to do something that is what I describe as non-conventional, yet very purpose-driven. So, my final question for you is, what is next for you?

35:07 Priya:     Oh, man. Well, a lot. We’re so grateful to be able to survive the pandemic. We grew as an organization and getting ready for us to continue to grow into the year ahead. Mental health is a very important topic. It will continue to be an important topic as we see the repercussions of the pandemic. So, we’re really looking to expand our programming throughout Chicago, but even beyond. Actually, right before the pandemic, we were about to expand into Miami and things got paused for a little bit. So, going back and hopefully being able to continue our growth into this year, into new places, and having a larger reach with our kids. We also are working on a documentary that’s coming out about our journey from bringing The Simple Good in Chicago to East Africa. And just the challenges that it takes to do and create your own endeavor and how that also allows the challenges for you to confront your own traumas and who you are and compare your identity when you do this work. So I’m really excited about sharing that story, even though it will be very vulnerable for me. And you do this work of the challenge or being purposeful, you’re always going to have to challenge yourself and your whys. So, I think it’ll be a really great piece to show other young women of color also, examples of pushing yourself to do something that’s true to you despite what people say. So yeah, those are a couple of things and just pushing through and continuing to grow our work. This is the hope and prayer for the year ahead.

36:52 Monique:     Yeah. So, the big what’s next is the expansion opportunities. And I love it. Global. And when you’re referencing East Africa, where in particular?

37:04 Priya:     We’re in Rwanda and Uganda. Yeah. So, we worked with a couple of schools out there and we’re hoping to deepen our relationships and our ability to do more work in those regions as well once we get out of this COVID era of ours right now.

37:21   Monique:     Yes, and we will. We will. It’s going to be in our rearview mirror. And the pandemic is going to be a thing that we talk about in the past as opposed to the current reality. And so it’s all about, let’s use this time to prepare for when we get to the other side, and we will. So, thanks again for joining me here on Tuesdays with Coach Mo.

37:43 Priya:     Awesome. Thank you so much for having me, Monique. This was awesome.